From hip hop to jazz, the alternative inspiration
Linda Fredriksson with Swedish group Mopo
Anything but traditional: Leo Riegler and Lukas König of Koenigleopold from Vienna
Alternative is starting to become a meaningless phrase in mainstream music; the artists at 12 Points, though, are trying to reforge the cutting edge
The alternative music scene was once where you went to hear music at its most extreme, a place of strange people with odd instruments and even stranger ideas about what to do with them, all in the name of innovation and experimentation. Now, mainstream music has claimed alternative, or “alt”, as its own: Billboard’s current top 10 alternative chart contains such far-out artists as Muse, Mumford Sons and Fun. Alternative music’s cutting edge has been blunted.
The jazz scene has always relished its “outsider” image, fed on a steady if now cliched diet of dangerous looking people in sharp suits and smoky settings. The 12 Points festival, which starts today in Dublin, has one of the most eclectic offerings of any music festival: 12 young acts are selected to perform, each from a different European city, and the concerts take place in Dublin every other year and travel around Europe in-between. It’s a celebration of the shock of the new in jazz and music.
One of the common features among these alternative acts is their enthusiasm for collaboration, across genres, across art forms and across countries. Koenigleopold from Vienna are a collaborative case in point. The duo met at Jazzwerkstatt Wien (Jazzworkshop Vienna), a two-month festival in 2004 that has now evolved into an international community of musicians and collaborators (the collective released the band’s first album, Aalfang, on its label).
Leo Riegler is a self-taught musician with a mainly hip hop background, whereas Lukas König studied music in the more traditional sense. The band, though, is anything but traditional. König plays bass and drums at the same time, one of their recent tracks laments being wasteful with hot water, and, according to Lukas König, recently “the main theme of our work is circling around food”. (The latter is not without its dangers – the band were the subject of a lawsuit, and a decent amount of media brouhaha, after a butcher took umbrage with his name being used in one of their YouTube videos.)
“We use ourselves as a filter and are reflecting everything we hear, see and smell and transforming it to an art form that we think we can do best: music,” says König.
Historically, jazz has perhaps been music’s most innovative genre, but that torch may have passed in recent years to younger genres, such as hip hop and electronic music. “There have been so many people who discussed if jazz is dead or it’s just smelling funny, or if it has moved to another continent,” says König. “Our inspiration isn’t coming from jazz alone at all. As a drummer, I am not a specialist in harmonic structures, but rhythmically, I’m more inspired from new hip hop and electronic music productions, which are pointing to morphing and shifting methods, which brings the rhythmic question back to ethnic music or even minimalism.
“The sound engineering factor [by experimenting with acoustics, recording and production techniques] can be found more in other genres than in jazz, where it has been the tradition that people gathered into a studio, playing music. This sound, without any major production, has its own speciality, because you hear the raw spirit of the music. But for us, right now, it’s important to combine as many sound ideas as possible, and therefore technology is too interesting and developed to just make a jazz record.”
Linda Fredriksson from Swedish group Mopo, who are also playing at 12 Points, reckons that there is a split between traditional jazz music and the more experimental side, and it’s mainly the traditional that leaks into the public consciousness.
“The jazz that’s based on the traditional big bands is maybe more popular and you see and hear it more. But I also see and hear a lot of jazz and improvised music that is really alternative, creative and is discovering new things and sounds.”
Jazz can be a hard sell for a general audience, and the myths and perceived challenge around it can put off a curious listener. Francesco Turrisi is an Italian multi-instrumentalist based in Dublin. He reckons that this has more to do with the players than with any reluctance on the part of the audience.
“Historically jazz was an underground thing, where a lot of hip things happened. That kind of vibe has gone certainly here [on the local Irish scene].
“I find a lot of modern jazz musicians are closed minded, which is a shame. Throughout the whole history of music all the evolution happened in relation to other kinds of music. It’s very hard to be purist. You pick up influences from everything.”
For Turrisi, one of the worst things a musician can do is underestimate the audience. “No matter how complicated an idea is, if you have the right person who presents it well, it can still come across. If you are not going to communicate well with your audience, you might as well just stay in your room on your own, playing music to no one.
“I’m amazed at how people react well when you are on stage, creating that kind of contract as opposed to creating that kind of barrier as some musicians do . . . People like to be challenged.”
Luka König has been similarly delighted with the audience reaction to his band’s off-kilter amalgam of influences. “People are confronted with our music and don’t quite know what to do with it. Our goal is to play the music we make, which is far away from commercial pop music, and to show people that there is an act who can combine many different styles professionally and not forget about new possibilities. We want to confuse people as well. We are not giving them what they want, but giving them what they need.”
Linda Fredriksson takes a less deliberate approach to Mopo’s music. “In many ways I would think [our music] is alternative though it was never specifically planned that way. We just want to make good music or music that comes naturally and this is all the weird stuff that came out of us.”
Much like Turrisi, her experience with audiences faced with supposedly challenging music has been positive. “With Mopo, it has been a great surprise for all of us, we’ve got great feedback and a great reaction, it hasn’t been hard at all. Of course, if you are aiming to get your songs played on the radio, that’s not going to happen. But on a smaller scale, there has been a really appreciative audience.”
When asked what albums he regards as alternative and refreshingly original, König rattles off a list that includes records by Malcolm Braff, The Black Keys and, his main inspiration, Fred Frith’s Cheap at Half the Price. This 1984 album was recorded by Firth in his home using a four-track recorder on which he played nearly all the instruments and shifted away from his experimental work to a much more pop sound.
Linda Fredriksson comes up with an unlikely hero: Cherry Thing, last year’s collaboration between Norwegian free jazz trio The Thing and Neneh Cherry, perhaps best known in these parts for her singles Buffalo Stance and Seven Seconds. (Beneath the misleading pop veneer, Cherry has an enviable musical heritage – anyone who worked as the arranger on Blue Lines and bankrolled Massive Attack in the early days deserves plenty of respect.)
“That album is a great combination of free jazz coming together with a rock-pop singer. It’s a great combination in that it’s somehow really familiar and really fresh. I didn’t hear her before but in this concept, you would never believe that she is a mainstream singer.”
Food, collaboration, a hunger for change and Neneh Cherry – the alternative side of jazz has more than a few flavours to tempt a curious audience.
12 Points starts tonight until Saturday at Project Arts Centre, Dublin. 12points.ie
Four to catch at 12 Points
This drum-and-synth duo headline Friday night’s line-up and mix together a legion of influences, disco theatrics and an appalling taste in clothes. Weirdly, this might be the best band in the festival for those who claim to be allergic to jazz.
The Dutch are coming and are bringing the noise. Cactus Truck are on the punky, power side of alternative jazz. Expect them to take no prisoners with their Saturday slot.
HANNA PAULSBERG CONCEPT
Norway has a firm grip on new European jazz at the moment, and the Hanna Paulsberg Concept have a hand in that. This is music that takes its lead more from the tradition than the cutting edge, with strong melodics and crafted composition. Expect a touch of class during their Friday slot.
This year’s free-jam sessions are taking place in The Sweeney Mongrel ono Dame Street. Each night, the players decamp for a late-night improv session that often turns into something wilder than the main gigs. A house band on each night warms things up, before the visiting artists get down after midnight. To get in, ask for a wristband at each night’s concert at the Project Arts Centre.